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Twisted Spoon Press

PO Box 21 - Preslova 12, 150 21 Prague 5, Czech Republic


Interview with
Emil Hakl &
Václav Kahuda

Conducted by Barbora Gregorová and printed
in Babylon, no. 8, vol. XI
(April 29, 2002)


Where and when were you born?
Václav Kahuda: We were born in Prague. My mother reminded me recently that I didn't even cry. And while she was at it she reproached me for not watering the plants. She said that when they demonstrated how to bathe me ... that's when she started to cry.

Emil Hakl: I was born in the hospital at Karlová, March 1958,
6 a.m.

VK: In '65, November, and it was somewhere in Vinohrady.

EH: Maybe you were also born at Karlová ...

VK: No way, it was at the Vinohrady hospital, at 11 a.m.

Do you know much about your genealogy or ancestors?
EH: My great-grandfather Benes founded the tiny village of Vlceves, which lies between Pelhrimov and Tabor. Actually, he had a homestead there and today the address number is 1. Whoever goes there and asks for Benes will invariably get the reply: For God's sake, it's house number 1! But now there are about 18 numbers, even though I've never been there. My grandfather was one of four brothers who were born in that house and out of all of them he was the best equestrian.

VK: My uncle was a professor at a Gymnasium in Strakonice and when he retired he still had so much energy in him that he would go to all family events — births, funerals, marriages, etc. — and make for the relatives a jigsaw puzzle from a picture of a tree. The oldest ancestor I know about was a farmer by the name of Jan Vrazda (Murder) in Kanin u Melnika in 1716.

EH: I have a relative who went by the name of Baliff Hruza (Horror). He was the brother of my great-grandfather.

How long have you been here?
VK: If you mean at this table, about 20 minutes. But if you mean in Holesovice, I guess since 1986, but even before that I would visit my grandmother here.

EH: I've been in Prague since '68, but don't ask me about the tanks. I was born in Prague but then I was transplanted to Klánovice (now an outlying district of Prague) where my parents had a villa. When they divorced, Mother moved to Bustehrad and then to Prague. Now I live at Jiriho z Podebrad next to the worst Meinl in Prague.

VK: The worst? You used to praise it. Did they ruin it?

EH: Completely. But back to Holesovice: I had a business here in '97 (VK: and a girl). OK, fine, a business and a girlfriend, and this is what my new novel is about. It should be coming out soon.

How would you describe the "genius loci" here?
V.K.: I grew up on a housing estate where there were open fields, wind, gray prefab apartment blocks, a small market, a school and pub — besides this, nothing. Maybe an orchard of cherry trees could be found somewhere in the distance where the normal world began. Visiting Holesovice helped me to unwind because it has the lay of a normal city, the city as an organic entity. The atmosphere here is human and natural, and as a child I'd take deep breaths of it. I also knew Holesovice from my father's and grandmother's stories. They had lived here since 1929, and at that time there were still chickens running around and a colony of fishermen. But the main thing was that it was on the city's periphery. Now Holesovice is considered an extension of the center. Still, thanks to the river and other sorts of ruptures it has kept some of its unique character. The housing estate was hell for me and one big misunderstanding. I've lived here since my grandmother's death, except for one short break when I went a little crazy and decided to live outside of Prague. I'm your typical Prague native. When I go to the countryside all the tractors stop in the fields so everyone can gawk at me.

So you wouldn't permanently move away from Prague?
EH: I'm too much a coward to move somewhere else. I would last maybe a month max.

Even in Vlceves?
EH: Jesus, what would I do there ... It'd only take one shot of peppermint schnapps and I'd be right back here.

VK: I gave it a try once and it almost worked out. I lived in a cottage where my parents now live but I started to become twitchy. In Prague I feel normal and in my element.

What sort of childhood did you have in Prague?
EH: Almost none. I was ten when we moved here ...

VK: Well, as for me, I remember only the worst. Standard fare. A collection of the most disgusting experiences and in between something nice might happen. As a teenager I was kind of a bad egg who didn't fit into the accepted forms and norms. It bothered me but at the same time I had to protect my inner identity, my bare existence, so that I wouldn't fall apart. So of course I had problems with my parents, which doesn't mean I don't love them. The normal teenage angst, though maybe a bit exaggerated in my case.

What sort of games did you play as a kid?
VK: I didn't get the whole football thing and what it was all about. Not that I didn't want to play, I tried, but I had no feeling for the collective. What's more, I was slower and more asocial, and I always ruined the game. Whenever the ball came to me I would kick it back but I didn't even know why. I liked to shoot a BB gun at tin cans, or toss a knife at them, but I hit maybe one out of ten ... And I really enjoyed chasing people ...

EH: Did you do that in gym class?

VK: No, after school. It was a big hit with my classmates.

EH: We would make a kind of weapon that consisted of taking one nut and then screwing in two screws from each side and in between them we'd put match-head shavings, the more the better. Then we would throw the thing against a wall. It might not seem like much, but when it exploded and broke apart it would fly for thirty meters. I'm surprised it didn't put a hole in someone's head.

When and how did you two meet?
EH: You ask like we were married. I don't even know. In Zbraslav I guess, at the end of the '80s in the Lubor pub where a group of us would regularly meet, and later we formed the Modern Illiterates. But how we all came together I really don't remember. I know only that Petr [Václav] had this beautifully brocaded blue-green sportcoat, and I was jealous.

VK: It had belonged to my uncle. Now my dad wears it when he weeds around the cottage. And you had that half-kilo quiff. I was jealous of that. What's a sportcoat compared to that ...

In the 1980s, did you hook up with the "literary underground" or did you keep your distance from it?
EH: The activities of the so-called underground itself kept me at a distance because whenever I would meet someone who considered himself to be part of it, he was always so snobby and over-the-top cocky that I wouldn't have known how to have anything in common with them even if I wanted to. They always rubbed me the wrong way, and looking back at it today, I can say that my instinct was pretty much on the mark.

VK: For the most part I didn't know this sort of thing even existed. I lived on the outskirts, in Sporilov, I walked the dog and read books. And that's just about all I did.

EH: I had a few friends in the music underground. So I was hanging out every now and then with "dissidents" (I'm a little put off by the word actually, it was just by accident I was around them), but because of my experience I've always associated a constant, palpable arrogance with them, though that's not what they intended or even wanted. I'd much rather talk to some old lady in Zizkov than with some dimwit who thinks he knows how everything should be.

VK: That's for sure. The movement was full of vacuous types.

How did you make a living?
VK: I was trained as a plasterer, and when our guild was dissolved in 1986 I began to walk the dog. Before that I had applied to art school, but my scores were not that great and I didn't get in. Actually, I never really graduated high school even though I began taking classes at a junior college. I tried taking evening classes, but I bagged it and took work as a night watchman, and I wrote. I avoided army conscription on health grounds, which I was more than OK with because I knew that if I did have to serve it would end badly for either me or someone else. And then I worked in a boiler room, as a watchman ... I was running on instinct. I always made a little money, then holed up at home for six months, and when I didn't have enough for rent and beer I went out to find work again. That's the way it went over and over, like breathing. But all I cared about was being able to write. Nothing else interested me, although I've never been able to live off writing. No one really does here.

EH: I've repeated the story so many times I have it written down somewhere. After graduating Gymnasium I worked arranging display windows. I worked with a Filipino guy named Honza Suromo, and he had some peculiar intentions for me. I still feel to this day that somehow he considered me his magic formula and tried various experiments with me that I knew nothing about. Then I served in the army and after that the National Library, where I took librarian extension classes. But I had to leave and for another twelve years I worked as a machinist at the waterworks. I also worked as a soundman at Barrandov Studios, which led to my getting a job at an advertising agency that I endured for five years. And now I do absolutely nothing. For three years I've been sitting at home writing. Well, for half a year I was an editor at the literary broadsheet Tvar.

What was it that led you to write?
EH: That I won't tell you. Ask Petr. Look at him, he's so nervous he can't speak. Well, go on, I'm interested to hear what drove you to write.

VK: Somewhere under the tree stump where you'll find those cartoon characters Gravel and Toadstool, during that time when masturbation begins, when I no longer understood my coevals and retreated into a deep solitude. I immersed myself in the world of books, animals, nature — anything but people. But I still had a yearning to communicate with someone, and some books even became alive for me. The darkness ... I played as a child, but around the age of ten something began to rupture. Then I reached the age when your hormones start to act up and I would spend weekends or school vacation with my cousins in the country. I have fond memories of that. (Pauses.) I suppose my battery's running low because I've forgotten the question.

EH: You always say the same thing over and over, whatever the question you just ignore it and like an electric train you just bzzzzzzzzz ...

It was about the first impulse to write ...
EH: I wrote poetry for a fairly long time, at least ten years. I had two collections published but then asked myself: Is this something a grown man should be doing? ... About three years ago I just sort of naturally switched to writing prose.

On the cover flap of your first collection of stories, End of the World [Konec sveta, 2001], it says that Václav Kahuda was the one who "incited" you to write prose.
EH: No. I'll tell you what happened and you put it in. I asked Václav Kahuda to write a blurb for the cover, and he worded it in such a way that it seems like he's taking credit for my switching to prose.

VK: Oh come on ... is that how you feel about it?

EH: Not really, but a few people have told me that's how it seemed to them.

Do you critique each other's work?
VK: Did you prepare that or did it just occur to you? (Pauses.) I'll repeat what I told one newspaper: the title piece "End of the World" is one of the best stories about the 1990s, and the whole book is damn good. And people whose opinion I respect have told me the same thing without my having to prompt them. Anyway, the book lives its own life. It came out a year ago and whatever reviews or critics say about it is beside the point.

EH: Now it's my turn to lay it on. In my opinion Kahuda's work is so remarkable that I'm not able to say anything more about it, like with Bruno Schulz, who I know is one of Petr's influences. To my own surprise I've read his novel Underbrush [Houstina, 1999] over and over, and it's difficult to say something about a work when you know the author personally. This is what I wanted to say: he's a superb writer.

VK: You're making me misty ...

As long as we're talking about literary influences, what authors other than Schulz have been important for you?
VK: Bruce Lee (laughs).

EH: I have my favorite authors that I reread, but I've talked about it so many times already it's stupid to keep repeating myself. As for contemporary Czech authors, I think it's slim pickings. I hope I don't sound full of myself, but a lot of people would agree with me. I wouldn't include Petr Sabach in this though. I've read two of his novels and liked them both. His prose moves, draws you in, there's a story, and more importantly he's not posturing, or if he is he's doing a good job of hiding it.

VK: I've also talked enough about this. The author who initiated me into literature was Bohumil Hrabal. Through him I became acquainted with many other writers, such as Hasek, Jakub Deml, and Kafka ... Among contemporary writers, I'm really into the Brno poet Petr Hrbác, but his work has been pretty much ignored unfortunately.

EH: Yeah, I'm looking forward to his new book of prose. He sent an excerpt to Tvar when I was still an editor there. I'd like to also mention Karel Kuna, who hasn't been published yet.

VK: I think the whole Moravian scene is interesting actually. Poets like Robert Fakjus and Norbert Holub and a whole slew of authors just a bit older, like Vit Slíva, who's really good, authentic — he was a Gymnasium professor and ended up at a primary school out in the country, but he deserves his own department. Great men always stick out.

Why do you use a pseudonym?
EH: When I was at the conservatory studying to be a lyricist — and we were such a snooty, obnoxious crew — I would tinker with writing verse and say to myself: When I'm famous and so forth, there's already one Jan Benes. I didn't really know who he was or what he was writing, but just so there wouldn't be any confusion ... I saw him on TV not too long ago and had to congratulate myself again for thinking up a pseudonym. Why Hakl? Sometimes I say this was my grandmother's name just to get the question out of the way. But the truth is that when I was in Louny in the army, every time we left the base we got this disgusting vehicle the Germans had left behind, and it was nicknamed a "hakl." I really liked it because it would always seize up about 50 meters from the base's gates. We were always prepared for it though and made sure we had everything we needed to make grog. But I have no idea why I chose Emil.

VK: It's the same with me. You need your own trademark. When we were publishing the Almanac I thought up a variety of pseudonyms. Then I published something under my real name, but around the same time another Petr Kratochvíl, whom I don't know at all, published something, and then a Milos V. Kratochvíl joined in, and then there's the Brno writer with the short "i," Jirí Kratochvil ... We were like a pack of dogs. I needed a normal sounding name. Then I discovered that Kahuda had been Minister of Education in the 1950s, and his father psychotronic, a communist, alcoholic, and inventor. Interesting man, but definitely not a good guy. I thought that maybe it wasn't such a bright idea to be associated with him, but the fact is, most people younger than me, or even my age, don't know anything about him.

EH: Anyone around the age of 45 acts like a deer in a glade when they hear that name: they prick up their ears but they're not sure why.

Václav, in your last book, Flows [Proudy, 2001], you write that the latter part of the 1990s was an anxious time for you, that you sensed some sort of mystery. Could you be a bit more concrete?
VK: In the '80s I couldn't take anyone seriously, not those who were rebelling nor the communists. For me Husák wasn't much of an enemy, he was more like Goofy. No cop ever slapped me. In my eyes the authorities were just total clowns, somehow outside of reality, aficionados of oompah music ...

EH: The cops made coffee for me ... I didn't get slapped either but I had coffee at least on five separate occasions. It was damn good coffee too.

VK: Well, the police need to know how to make good coffee ... The year 1989 somehow passed me by. I went up to Letna to take a look at the demonstrations. It was emotional, I even got a little teary. For a moment I stepped out of my inner world and began to take seriously what was written in the newspapers. But my enthusiasm that this thing had finally ended soon faded. I saw that nothing had ended at all, that these windbags and rabble had only joined new political parties ... This was not a general impression but based on concrete events and accounts. It was so prevalent that I "cursed" society and returned to my inner world, to nature, and hanging around with other writers. I continued my conservations with Pessoa and Kafka ...

Do you follow politics?
EH: To my horror I've discovered that it's impossible not to pay attention to politics here. This noxious, second-rate bordello and the relationships it has spawned is so aggressive and intrusive that you can't hide from it even if you tried. But I definitely don't actively follow politics. Staying disinterested helps me maintain inner harmony. The political scene is a relatively isolated group of individuals whose expenditures are unfortunately picked up by the rest of the country. But I don't want to make a big deal about it. I'm used to living next to thieves because I was born into this world, and it doesn't arouse any emotion in me.

VK: It's like expressing an opinion on nature: whether there'll be more cherries this year or if moles are multiplying too rapidly ... Their desires are so apparent and the formula of the world is always the same. Somewhere someone always wants something, and this wanting condenses to such a point that one's behavior is guided by the instinct for self-preservation, that is, we begin to behave badly. The more constricted space becomes, the worse we behave. It's extremely difficult to step out from your own shadow and free yourself of this.

How do you imagine the end of the world?
EH: I don't imagine it. It's an ongoing category, continually in flux. It might wax or wane, at times it might seem actual and at other times less actual, like electromagnetic waves. But even if there were an end of the world for humans, that probably wouldn't be the end of the world in general. How it's conceived is really an individual matter, like God. Both are empty concepts.

And what do you believe in if not in God?
EH: Where do you get these questions? Are they just whirling around in your head?

VK: I've read a lot of books on Zen, Tao, etc. And purely from a human animal perspective, what interests me are apocalypse and genesis, alfa and omega, and within that ... Well, it's like Egon Bondy says, for example, someone I have the highest regard for, in one conversation he said that he tried being a Buddhist, but you can only become one when you stop wanting to be. When I was 25-26 I devoured everything I could about it, and I feel an affinity to Buddhism. But at the same time I would go to hear Cardinal Tomásek and watch the Polish Pope, and I'm not even baptized.

EH: Tell her about Ivan Odilo Stampach, the anthropologist priest. He's clearly a man more educated and reasonable than all of us put together. There was an interview with him in the recent literary supplement of Pravo, and I was struck at how he expressed himself in a way that was intelligible.

VK: Somehow everything was put in motion and then broke apart, and I'm not able to speak of it in concrete terms. It's an unnamable, impersonal flow of something somewhere. I even perceive myself as something I have under less and less control. Consciousness is an illuminated clearing in the jungle, emotions are the foundation, and the intellect is something like the jungle's solicitor. The more I'm confronted with life the less I know about myself. I'm completely incapable of declaring myself for anything or to define my endeavors. There is nothing I can say about it.

EH: I'm interested to know how you would answer the question ... Is it difficult?

Of course it's difficult, but youve dodged my question ...
EH: You'll get the same answer from a twenty-year-old as you will from someone with one foot in the grave. I'm somewhere in between and with a clear conscience can state that I don't know. I actually think about this a lot but have a hard time verbalizing it.

And what about reincarnation? Do you think you've met in a former life?
EH: There's a lot I could say about it but there isn't enough time right now.

VK: It's quite possible. But these fundamental questions are difficult to talk about.

EH: I think each one of us will find out individually. Either that's the case or it isn't. Anyway, to get in a plug, I'm working on my third book of prose and I deal with this for about forty pages, so I'd rather not reveal anything right now. To my amazement I have to say that when a person leaves the physical world, for a time, maybe a week or even a month, he still sends out signals from a sort of transfer turnstile. No one knows what lies beyond it, maybe that is where you totally disintegrate and break apart (VK: I hope so). So do I, but I suppose there's a reason people have believed in an afterlife. I'm certainly not in a position to draw any conclusions from this. It's complex, unspeakable.

@ Babylon
Translation @ Twisted Spoon Press


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